Max Beckmann (February 12, 1884 – December 28, 1950) was a German painter, draftsman, printmaker, sculptor, and writer. Although he is classified as an Expressionist artist, he rejected both the term and the movement. In the 1920s, he was associated with the New Objectivity (Neue Sachlichkeit), an outgrowth of Expressionism that opposed its introverted emotionalism.
Max Beckmann was born into a middle-class family in Leipzig, Saxony. From his youth he pitted himself against the old masters. His traumatic experiences of World War I, in which he volunteered as a medical orderly, coincided with a dramatic transformation of his style from academically correct depictions to a distortion of both figure and space, reflecting his altered vision of himself and humanity.
He is known for the self-portraits painted throughout his life, their number and intensity rivaled only by Rembrandt and Picasso. Well-read in philosophy and literature, he also contemplated mysticism and theosophy in search of the "Self". As a true painter-thinker, he strove to find the hidden spiritual dimension in his subjects. (Beckmann's 1948 "Letters to a Woman Painter" provides a statement of his approach to art.)
Beckmann enjoyed great success and official honors during the Weimar Republic. In 1925 he was selected to teach a master class at the Städelschule Academy of Fine Art in Frankfurt. Some of his most famous students included Theo Garve, Leo Maillet and Marie-Louise von Motesiczky. In 1927 he received the Honorary Empire Prize for German Art and the Gold Medal of the City of Düsseldorf; the National Gallery in Berlin acquired his painting The Bark and, in 1928, purchased his Self-Portrait in Tuxedo. By the early 1930s, a series of major exhibitions, including large retrospectives at the Städtische Kunsthalle Mannheim (1928) and in Basle and Zurich (1930) together with numerous publications, showed the high esteem in which Beckmann was held.
His fortunes changed with the rise to power of Adolf Hitler, whose dislike of Modern Art quickly led to its suppression by the state. In 1933, the Nazi government called Beckmann a "cultural Bolshevik" and dismissed him from his teaching position at the Art School in Frankfurt. In 1937 more than 500 of his works were confiscated from German museums, and several of these works were put on display in the notorious Degenerate Art exhibition in Munich. The day after Hitler's infamous radio speech about degenerate art in 1937, Beckmann left Germany with his second wife, Quappi. For ten years, Beckmann lived in poverty in self-imposed exile in Amsterdam, failing in his desperate attempts to obtain a visa for the US. In 1944 the Germans attempted to draft him into the army, despite the fact that the sixty-year-old artist had suffered a heart attack. The works completed in his Amsterdam studio were even more powerful and intense than the ones of his master years in Frankfurt, and included several large triptychs, which stand as a summation of Beckmann's art.
After the war, Beckmann moved to the United States, and during the last three years of his life, he taught at the art schools of Washington University in St. Louis (with the German-American painter and printmaker Werner Drewes) and the Brooklyn Museum. Beckmann came to St. Louis at the invitation of Perry T. Rathbone, who was then director of the Saint Louis Art Museum. Rathbone arranged for Washington University in St. Louis to hire Beckmann as an art teacher, filling a vacancy left by Philip Guston, who had taken a leave. The first Beckmann retrospective in the United States took place in 1948 at the City Art Museum, Saint Louis. In St. Louis, Morton D. May became his patron and, already an avid amateur photographer and painter, a student of the artist. Beckmann also helped him learn to appreciate Oceanian and African art. After stops in Denver and Chicago, he and Quappi later took an apartment at 38 West 69th Street in Manhattan. He suffered from angina pectoris and died after Christmas 1950, struck down by a heart attack at the corner of 61st Street and Central Park West in New York, not far from his apartment building. As the artist’s widow recalled, he was on his way to see one of his own paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Unlike several of his avant-garde contemporaries, Beckmann rejected non-representational painting; instead, he took up and advanced the tradition of figurative painting. He greatly admired Cézanne, but also Van Gogh, Blake, Rembrandt, Rubens and Northern European artists of the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance such as Bosch, Bruegel and Matthias Grünewald. His style and method of composition are also rooted in the imagery of medieval stained glass.
Encompassing portraiture, landscape, still life, mythology and the fantastic, his work created a very personal but authentic version of modernism, combining this with traditional plasticity. Beckmann reinvented the triptych and expanded this archetype of medieval painting into a looking glass of contemporary humanity.
From its beginnings in the fin de siècle up to its completion after World War II, Beckmann's work reflects an era of radical changes in both art and history. Many of Max Beckmann‘s paintings express the agonies of Europe in the first half of the 20th century. Some of his imagery refers to the decadent glamor of the Weimar Republic's cabaret culture, but from the 1930s on, his works often contain mythologized references to the brutalities of the Nazis. Beyond these immediate concerns, his subjects and symbols assume a larger meaning, voicing universal themes of terror, redemption, and the mysteries of eternity and fate.
Many of Beckmann's late paintings are displayed in American museums. He exerted a profound influence on such American painters as Philip Guston and Nathan Oliveira. His posthumous reputation perhaps suffered from his very individual artistic path; like Oskar Kokoschka, he defies the convenient categorization that provides themes for critics, art historians and curators. Other than a major retrospective at New York's Museum of Modern Art, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the Art Institute of Chicago in 1964-65 (with an excellent catalogue by Peter Selz), and MoMA's prominent display of the triptych "Departure", his work was little seen in America for decades. His 1984 centenary was marked in the New York area only by a modest exhibit at Nassau County's suburban art museum.
Since then, Beckmann's work has gained an increasing international reputation. There have been retrospectives and exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art (1995) and the Guggenheim Museum (1996) in New York, and the principal museums of Rome (1996), Valencia (1996), Madrid (1997), Zurich (1998), St. Louis—which holds the largest public collection of Beckmann paintings in the world—(1998), Munich (2000), Frankfurt (2006) and Amsterdam (2007). In Spain and Italy, Beckmann's work has been accessible to a wider public for the first time. A large-scale Beckmann retrospective was exhibited at the Centre Pompidou in Paris (2002) and Tate Modern in London (2003). In 2011, the Städel in Frankfurt devoted an entire room to the artist in its newly fitted permanent exhibition of modern art.
In 1996, Piper, Beckmann's German publisher, released the third and last volume of the artist’s letters, whose wit and vision rank him among the strongest writers of the German tongue. His essays, plays and, above all, his diaries are also unique historical documents. A selection of Beckmann's writings was issued in America in 1996.
In 2003, Stephan Reimertz, Parisian novelist and art historian, published the biography of Max Beckmann. It presents many photos and sources for the first time. The biography reveals Beckmann's contemplations on writers and philosophers such as Dostoyevsky, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Richard Wagner. The book has not yet been translated into English.
Although Beckmann is considered one of the towering figures of 20th-century art, he has never been a household name, and his works have mostly appealed to a niche market of German and Austrian collectors. In 1921 Beckmann signed an exclusive contract with the print-dealer J. B. Neumann in Berlin. In 1938 he had the first of numerous exhibitions at Curt Valentin’s Buchholz Gallery, New York. Today, his large paintings routinely sell for more than $1 million, and his self-portraits generally command the highest prices. In 2001, Ronald Lauder paid $22.5 million, a record for the artist, at Sotheby’s New York for Beckmann’s Self-Portrait with Horn (1938), and displayed it at the Neue Galerie in New York.